There's an old adage in sports that great players rarely make great coaches.
Well, the Tennessee Titans beg to differ.
The Titans employ 10 coaches who played in the NFL. That's a remarkable number in a league in which most teams have just a few former NFL players on their staffs. What makes the Titans' situation even more unique is that several of the ex-NFLers on the staff were truly elite players. These Titans coaches will hit the practice field next week for the start of OTAs
Titans players have been working out at the team facility since early April. But now comes the time when coaching and teaching take center stage, as the coaches can start officially working with players.
The coaches are chomping at the bit to get into the OTAs, minicamps and individual instruction sessions that were nonexistent last year due to the NFL lockout. They could not interact at all with their players until late July, which presented "a huge challenge," according to Titans head coach Mike Munchak. A rookie head coach in 2011, Munchak would have loved more preparation time with his team, which had a lot of new coaches and players (including both coordinators, Chris Palmer and Jerry Gray, and the top two quarterbacks, Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker). Still, the Titans finished a respectable 9-7 and approach 2012 with optimism, as most teams do this time of year.
What the coaches missed last year, but have this year, is the teaching time that comes in the spring and early summer, before the pressure of training camp roster decisions and in-season game preparation takes over. Coaches must always be in teaching mode, but there's more time for instruction now.
In the case of the Titans and their staff's on-field accomplishments, it means left tackle Michael Roos has an opportunity to further improve his craft with input from offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. Prior to Matthews' arrival last year, Munchak was Roos' position coach. A Pro Bowler in 2008, Roos is one of the few NFL players who can say he has only been coached by Hall of Famers during his NFL career.
"I haven't known anything different," Roos said. "I've gotten a lot of good knowledge from them. It's unique to get that kind of coaching. Neither guy is a screamer, which I think is good. Munch is a perfectionist. He told us he was learning his position and trying to perfect his technique until the day he retired. Bruce is the same way. They've played at the top level and personally done it so well that they get instant respect. But whether a coach played in the NFL or not, they've got to be able to teach the position. They're both great teachers and have the passion to help every player get better every year. They also know how much work it takes and how hard it is day in and day out."
Jeff Fisher has a good perspective on Matthews, Munchak and the move from NFL player to NFL coach. The current Rams head coach played five seasons with the Bears as a defensive back and returner. This after a college career at USC, where he and Matthews were teammates. Fisher later became Matthews' head coach for eight years in Tennessee, while Munchak was Fisher's offensive line coach in Tennessee. He's not at all surprised they have become good coaches.
"Munch and Bruce were great players -- dedicated and terrific competitors," Fisher said. "They always worked hard to get better and that's how they are as coaches.
"Because they were great players, they benefit from extra credibility as coaches at the start. But then like all good coaches, they have to be able to teach, communicate, understand the game and players' needs. Munch and Bruce are that kind of coach."
As Titans president, I saw what an excellent offensive line coach Mike Munchak was when he molded a Super Bowl line in 1999 out of a group that included two second-year players who were late-round picks (guard Benji Olson, a fifth-rounder, and center Kevin Long, a seventh-round pick). He combined those young players with three veterans -- two former first-rounders in Matthews at guard and Brad Hopkins at left tackle, along with right tackle Jon Runyan (a fourth-rounder). That group gave quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George all the support they needed. Despite departures and retirements, Munchak consistently produced a top offensive line year after year thanks to his coaching ability.
Munchak agrees with Fisher that being a good teacher is necessary to take advantage of the credibility born from his successful playing career.
"It's been so long since I played," he said. "Our players hear about my days as a player so I can walk in getting respect. A lot of great players can't teach what they know, so they can't transition from player to coach. The bottom line is you are a teacher ... if I can't coach and teach them and make them better players, then it goes out the window."
Munchak didn't set out to hire a bunch of coaches with NFL playing experience. "The key criteria was not that they played in the NFL," he said. "It's that they have proven they can coach and teach. Their resume was what I saw on tape -- that their players get the point of what they're trying to teach and that as coaches, they have the passion for the job.
"And certainly guys who never played professionally can still be great coaches. The league is full of guys who put in the time, are patient and are just great teachers who get players to respond to their coaching."
Some great coaches didn't play in the NFL, including Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown and Bill Walsh from the past and Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan and reigning Super Bowl champ Tom Coughlin in the present. But they all were good college players who knew the game, could teach it and motivate others to be successful. They may not have started out with the instant respect of a Munchak or Matthews, but they earned it.
Those legendary coaches never did something that Bruce Matthews is doing -- coach their sons. One of the young Titans linemen in OTAs next week is Kevin Matthews, who made the team in 2010 as an undrafted center from Texas A&M. While Bruce says he treats Kevin the same as all his players, it's still an exciting experience for him.
"I've been blessed to do a lot of special things in the NFL -- from having my college teammate as my coach in Jeff Fisher to having Munch as a former teammate coach me on the O-line and now I really enjoy coaching Kevin," Matthews said. "It's exciting to be part of his development and exciting for us to be together at the Titans.
"I always looked at coaching to be like a parent where you tell your kids, these are some of the mistakes I made and you've got to eliminate or minimize mistakes. As a lineman, you win with good technique, and it's an easy sell for me to say I blossomed as a player when my technique improved, just as Munch told me when he coached me. When your technique improves, you don't burn so much excess energy and you can focus more on your opponent and the defensive look."
As Kevin Matthews competes for the starting center position, he will line up in practices against Titans defenders who are being coached on pass rushing by defensive assistant and pass rush specialist Keith Millard. I knew back in his playing days -- while together at the Vikings -- that Millard could be a great coach someday. He was so passionate about pass rush techniques and overall defensive line play. I remember when the Vikings played the Bears in a preseason game in Sweden in the late '80s, Millard was asking Bears All-Pro defensive end Dan Hampton about his pass rush moves when they met up in the streets of Gothenberg during down time.
Adrian Clayborn was Tampa Bay's first round pick last year, and Millard was his defensive line coach. Clayborn led the Bucs with 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
"In the back of my mind, I had a trust level with Keith because I knew he had been a great NFL defensive lineman," Clayborn said. "He taught me so much about techniques and moves. He's done it, so it's easy for him to communicate, and he knows what we go through as players. He's a great coach."
Millard, Munchak, Matthews, Gray and the rest of the Titans coaches will start their on-field teaching next week. Whether their stellar playing days give them a leg up on their peers will be determined come September.
Jeff Diamond is the former VP/GM of the Minnesota Vikings, former president of the Tennessee Titans and was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. He currently does sports and business consulting along with media work.